I’ve been traveling in Norway and the United Kingdom these past four weeks, talking with activists, academics and ordinary people. Everyone who looks about them sees a world in flux. The extraordinary Arab Awakening is still on people’s minds, and they’re wondering where the spirit of revolution might strike next. Where else besides North Africa and the Middle East might a revolutionary situation be brewing?
I see no signs of a revolutionary situation in Norway. Students of revolution keep an eye on the perceived legitimacy of a nation’s leadership, and Norwegians are enormously confident that their little ship in a big global sea is being steered well. The Labor Party continues to govern, as it has for most of the time since World War II. Since 2005 it has been in coalition with the Center (Agrarian) Party and the Socialist Left, which seems to be a stable partnership.
Labor Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg brags that his party won the last two elections by promising not to lower taxes! That’s the mark of a people satisfied they are getting their money’s worth.
The government is promising more than it’s delivering in terms of response to climate change, but Norway isn’t suffering much from the threat so far and most people are largely satisfied with the pace of change in energy policies — a satisfaction that environmental radicals, however, don’t share.
The United Kingdom is a different story. The legitimacy of the nation’s leadership is definitely in trouble. The mass media shout the stories of the irresponsibility of the 1 percent and the politicians they corrupt. The government is a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and is enthusiastic about enforcing austerity, running down the national health service and education system, forcing English university students to pay more for what used to be free education and opening new coal mines. Homelessness is already up by an estimated twenty-five percent.
One way that governments hold on to their legitimacy is to have an opposition party that holds out hope that, if it is elected, things will dramatically improve. That used to work in the U.K., as in the U.S.
However, in the U.K. the opposition party these days is the Labour Party, which discredited itself when it held power a few years ago by caving in to the 1 percent and bailing out the British equivalent of Wall Street. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier damaged himself and his party by going to war in Iraq with the U.S. Those recent bad moves continued the longer-run decline of the Labour Party as a source of real hope for poor and working class people.
While students of revolution need to pay attention to trends in legitimacy, another key question is this: Can the present leadership solve the biggest problems facing society?
Arguably the biggest problem is climate change. While the British 1 percent is allowing some sensible policies, like electrifying the railways and increasing wind farms, there is no sign that it has the will really to take the necessary steps. When you add together declining legitimacy, the inability to address climate change and the absence of a hopeful alternative within the institutional framework, you have conditions for the opening of a revolutionary situation over the next 10 years in the U.K.
I’ve been asking the activists I meet from England, Wales and Scotland: Are you ready?
How about the U.S.?
I see the same trends, though less advanced, in the United States. Even someone relying on news from the corporate-owned media gets plenty of reasons to give up on the leadership of the 1 percent. Six years ago Warren Buffett told The New York Times that “class war” in the U.S. was started by his class — “the rich class” — and it was winning.
The polls reflect huge disappointment with “the direction the country is going in” — the direction taken by both Republicans and Democrats. Those Democrats who had little hope in Congress and were naively pinning their hopes on Obama to single-handedly turn the country around have had to face reality.
Not only is legitimacy declining, but it’s also clear that the 1 percent has no game plan for dealing with climate change. At least in the U.K. the political parties agree it is a serious problem, but in the U.S. one party actually denies it. It’s doubtful that the seas will fail to rise without Republican permission.
The role that climate change will play in creating a revolutionary situation is worth thinking about. The question isn’t whether masses of people are at this moment worried about climate change — they’re not. But what happens when people connect the dots about extreme weather, increased food prices and increased costs for public transportation? Are parents who have to choose between heating their houses and feeding their children going to believe that the country’s leadership is doing okay, while their children’s schooling is being flushed down the toilet and medical costs continue to inflate?
Notice that all these real-life issues are traceable to the work of the 1 percent. Tracing such connections is our job — we can’t count on the mass media to do it — and nonviolent direct action campaigns can help make them apparent to people. And, in a sense, our task has never been easier. When has the 1 percent ever been so transparently the central cause of so many crises erupting together?
To me, it’s easy to predict that monumental failures and turbulence are on their way, more quickly in the U.K. but also in the U.S. I therefore ask activists in the U.S.: Are we ready?
Dancing with history
Last month, Peace News republished my book on how to prepare, now titled Moving Towards a Living Revolution (available from the Peace News website). It shows how a number of projects that activists are already doing can be re-geared to make the most of the historical period we’re moving into. The book offers a framework that maximizes unity and helps activists take positive steps forward at a time when we otherwise might be fearful. In the U.K. the readers are telling me it is helping them recover their optimism and sense of purpose.
The main challenge is to give up assuming that the future will look a lot like the world does now, with activists muddling through their various struggles in isolation. Who in Tunisia would have predicted in 2010 that their dictator would be overthrown in a year? In April of 1968, a London Times reporter wrote that the French public was apathetic and wondered why, given their problems, they seemed so apolitical. A month later the students were at the barricades on the Left Bank and over 10 million workers were striking and occupying their workplaces.
We now know that the Egyptian society also seemed quiet on the surface in the beginning of 2011, but that Egyptian activists had been preparing for at least nine years for the day when they could make their move.
As activists, we dance with history, and there’s no telling just when history will increase the pace of the dance. Instead of trying to guess by looking at today’s level of activity, it makes more sense to increase our thoughtfulness as we prepare for tomorrow. We need to consider rigorously — that is, strategically — whether protesting one-off summits like the G8 actually prepares for revolution or, as I believe, is a waste of time that could be better used for building actual campaigns.
An Awakening in the United Kingdom, United States and other countries awaits our nonviolent boldness, some of which we saw almost a year ago in the Occupy movement. History opens the door. It is our choice whether to prepare and go through it.